Love them or loathe them, presentations are the way we formally communicate in a professional setting, sharing information, soliciting feedback, and in all well-done presentations, advancing toward an objective. Despite such lofty objectives, too many presentations are boring, convoluted wastes of time. At best, they end quickly to minimize the pain, and at worst they feel like irrecoverable time wasted on a forgotten topic.
Here are five tips on how to make your executive-level presentations better.
1. Start at the end
Too many presentations end up being what I’ve termed “information vomit.” Yes, it’s crass, but so are dozens of slides mashed together in a disorganized mess of information, random conclusions, and tepid recommendations that pass for “information sharing” in many presentations.
Before you open PowerPoint, or storyboard a single slide on the whiteboard, ask yourself what you want the audience to feel, think, and do immediately after you utter, “Thanks for your time,” and no: “Be better informed” is not a valid answer to any of those questions. A presentation is a tool to compel action, not a book report to provide trivia to disinterested participants. Get specific as you plan the action you want your presentation to compel. “Support my project” is getting in the right ballpark, but it’s not as good as, “Send an email of support to the CFO in my funding request for Project X.” Other good objectives could range from simply silencing a particular critic of one of your projects, generating interest for a new initiative, or justifying a strategic or key tactical decision.
If you’re soliciting advice, get specific in your objective and narrow it down to something like, “Get Sue’s input on whether we build the new marketing software, or use a cloud-based application.”
2. Test your objective on every slide
Once you’ve nailed down and clearly articulated your goal for the presentation, every time you add a slide, adjust the flow, or otherwise modify your content, ask yourself and your team how that slide moves toward your objective. We all have our favorite slides or go-to diagrams, and that 18-point spider chart may have taken you weeks to assemble, but you might get more mileage toward your objective with a simple three-bullet slide.
Once you have a set of compelling slides, ask these same questions as you flip through the whole presentation:
- Do the slides naturally flow?
- Do you raise questions or concerns on one slide that you then address?
- Is the opinion of the person you’re trying to impact following the path you’d expect?
3. Be a storyteller
There’s lots of advice admonishing executives to be better storytellers, to the point that it can feel somewhat hackneyed. In this case, two simple storytelling techniques should be applied to all your presentations. First, make sure there’s a beginning, middle, and end. At a basic level, the beginning of your story should outline the characters and situation. The middle should lay out the challenge those characters are facing, and how they’ll “slay the dragon.” The end should articulate why this story was important, and subtly suggest an action.
Don’t be afraid of metaphor and dramatic effect; we as humans are wired to be drawn to these techniques. After all, what’s more interesting: Telling someone not to talk to strangers due to potentially dire consequences, or the story of Little Red Riding Hood and her narrow escape from the Big Bad Wolf?
4. Be excited
Whether you’re presenting the most compelling initiative your company has launched in a decade, or an utterly rudimentary status update, present it like it’s the most exciting information you’ve ever shared. There’s nothing worse than a presenter who seems like he or she is utterly disinterested in the information they’re sharing, and that emotion is highly contagious.
There are two simple ways to convey excitement. First, simply smile during the entire presentation. It sounds goofy, but the physical act of smiling will adjust your tone and body language. Second, and you’ll have to trust me on this one since it sounds strange, give yourself a pep talk before you present, and literally tell yourself something like, “I am so excited I get to present this update on our 14-year cloud migration. This is the most exciting information I’ve shared in weeks!” Say this out loud or mentally a few times, and you’ll actually feel yourself getting excited.
There’s also no harm in explicitly sharing that excitement with your audience. Rather than diving into a 46-point agenda with a grimace and frown, introduce your topic and mention that you’re really excited to be with the group and share your topic.
5. Less is more
Like a good story, you want to leave your audience asking for more. If you have three slides supporting a conclusion, see if you can reduce that to one slide. There’s no harm in having reference slides in an appendix that you can quickly bring up should they be needed, and there’s even less harm in creating so much interest that you’re asked for follow-up information or additional meetings. Don’t look at an executive presentation as an opportunity to “download” every iota of information; rather, look at it as an opportunity to create interest in you and your expertise.
With some preparation and employing these five easy tips, you’ll be on the road to more effective and engaging executive presentations that will not only be more enjoyable for you and your audience, but will also be more likely to compel action.